Is He Dead?, a New Play by Mark Twain

American Comedy Drama Visual Art

Mark Twain is so well known for his successes that it's refreshing to learn that he wrote several mediocre plays, mostly commercial-minded light comedies, to help pay bills in his later years. Some of these plays were better than others, and it was only five years ago that Stanford University Twain scholar Shelley Fisher Fishkin discovered one diamond in the rough, a crazy send-up of the French art scene called Is He Dead? that Twain wrote in 1898 (it was almost produced, but the plans fell through).

Fishkin published a book version of the play that caught the attention of a top Broadway team headed by Michael Blakemore, and Is He Dead? is finally opening on Broadway this Friday night. I caught a preview last weekend.

Twain's comic sendup of the pre-Impressionist art scene in Paris and Barbizon, France is hardly sophisticated; it resembles a Three Stooges comedy more than a Whit Stillman film, and there's nothing wrong with that. A great real-life painter, Jean-Francois Millet, is the hero of this comedy, although the character based on Millet is played mainly for laughs and would certainly have horrified the real life Millet, who was the creator of many touching scenes of French peasant life, including The Sower:


... which also happens to be the source of the Simon and Schuster logo:

Millet was a revolutionary artist of his time (Vincent Van Gogh admired him), but he gets no respect at all from Mark Twain, who simply employs him as a standard character type, the starving Bohemian artist. Desparate for money, Millet and his rakish friends decide to drive up the prices of his paintings by faking his death, and for some reason they end up dressing Millet as his long-lost sister, turning Is He Dead? into a staple cross-dressing comedy (in the tradition that stretches from Twelfth Night to Tootsie).

And that's where the evening's best talent comes in: skilled comic actor Norbert Leo Butz makes little impression on stage as Millet until he puts on a fancy dress, and then the actor becomes suddenly possessed by an inexplicable strangeness. Butz's performance completely dominates the play at this point, particularly whenever he speaks in a hilarious plaintive bray that evokes Harvey Fierstein or possibly Joan Rivers. The good news is, Butz is so funny that anybody who showed up at the Lyceum Theatre to laugh will be satisfied with Is He Dead?.

The surprising news is that Butz's performance thoroughly eclipses not only every other performer on stage (they are barely noticed), but also eclipses both Mark Twain's script and Jean-Francois Millet's presence as a character. Millet's paintings are well displayed within the clever sets, and Mark Twain's comedy is polished enough. But the remarkable thing about Is He Dead? is Norbert Leo Butz roaming the stage like a madman for an hour and a half, and Norbert Leo Butz doesn't even need a script by Mark Twain or a character like Jean-Francois Millet to do that.

Is He Dead? is good literary history and good laughs. Find out more about the play at the Is He Dead? site.
6 Responses to "Is He Dead?, a New Play by Mark Twain"

One of my favorite paintings by Millet is "The Gleaners". It shows three women bent over, picking up the "gleanings" of the wheat harvest. French filmaker Agnès Varda took this as a starting point for a film of the same name, in which she documents present day gleaners, not only after the harvest, but people that pick up food after the markets, and an artist who picks up cast off items and uses them in his work.

The Norbert Butz performance sounds like a compelling reason to see the Mark Twain play.

by Levi Asher on

Yes, I am also fond of "The Gleaners", and the painting is featured in the play, as is also "The Angelus", another well-known Millet work.

Millet has always been one of my favorite pre-Impressionist painters. His rebellion against modernization and enthusiasm for the simple rustic life made him something like a "French Thoreau", and Barbizon his Walden Pond.

by Bill Ectric on

My wife and I have a copy of Millet’s “The Evening Prayer” on the wall. It was given to us as a housewarming gift by a good friend with whom we’ve shared many late night discussions about experimental writing and surrealism. Also known as “The Angleus,” this painting prompted Salvador Dali not only to incorporate portions of it in several paintings, but also to write an essay about it. Naturally, Dali saw sexual imagery in the pitchfork beside that man and the open wheelbarrow of potatoes beside the woman.

Amazingly, according to Kruno Martinac of the University of Melbourne, “Dali went further, requesting the scanning of the Angelus, and the X-ray result revealed the outlines of a coffin at the woman’s feet that was later covered by the potato field and the basket next to her wooden shoes. Dali claimed that the theme of the death of the son in the painting was not only confirmed by the coffin in the first version of it, but also by some statements that Millet’s original intention was to paint the burial of a little peasant boy. Dali related the Angelus to what he called ‘the atavism of twilight’ which elicited unrestrained associations out of external reality, interpreted by a heightened sensibility that, when coupled with one’s memory and subjective perception, developed a meaning and symbolism of personal significance, a ‘primal’ and atavistic ‘tragic myth’, as Dali suggested.”

Wow! I am going go have to re-visit Millet, based on this information.

by Henry on

I love Mark Twain, Can't stand the paintings of Millet, they seem like visual cliches, the play sounds wonderful.

by Jeremy on

This seems like an interesting play. Could someone provide me a link of its script?